Any parent of a budding Black activist can recall the unsettling menace that creeps in their spirits when their child participates in a march. While those feet stomp to the tune of freedom in a country, itself, born out of protest, it doesn’t take much imagination to discern how the danger associated with Blackness opens one up to direct and calculated violence by the state or its ardent supporters. Black Lightning’s third episode attempts to cull the same peculiar discomfort of state-sanctioned violence to middling effect, largely failing to ramp up the tension in an episode that sets the table for future conflicts between its major players.
Last week, Jefferson (Cress Williams) learned the stakes of his choice to become Black Lightning when LaWanda sacrificed herself in order to record the One Hundred’s brutality. Her funeral sets off the events of this week’s episode when a well-to-do preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Holt (Clifton Powell), calls for 100 members of the Freeland community to storm the streets to stand up to the One Hundred’s violent hand.
Inspector Henderson almost immediately cautions Rev. Holt to ease off the grand demonstrations, as not to inspire more violence. After telling off Henderson and the Freeland police in light of their corruption, Rev. Holt informs Jefferson that not only was LaWanda inspired by the appearance of Black Lightning, but he believes that BL’s resurgence is an act of God’s love. While it seemed like last week Jefferson had all but made up his mind in becoming Black Lightning for the long haul, tonight’s episode rehashes some of that moral crisis to a slightly diminished degree, leading to a climax that falters in maintaining consistent levels of tension.
It doesn’t take long for the leader of the One Hundred, the enigmatic Lady Eve (Jill Scott), to get wind of the coming march. Scott performs villainery with a sweet tea smile, ordering Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III) to make sure the people of Freeland know their place. “I don’t mind people believing in God,” she utters with icy eyes, “They just can’t believe they can take back these streets.”
We weren’t given very much time with her, but Lady Eve’s dominating presence on screen promises to add a bit of complication to the Big Bad role. She’s clearly ruthless, but the desperation underpinning her statement opens up a world of nuance to the character that we should look forward to revealing in later episodes.
Speaking of nuanced women characters, Anissa (Nafessa Williams) skips the homegoing service (and a bunch of other Pierce family events) altogether to explore her burgeoning powers. After sneaking into a junkyard, Anissa runs a few tests in order to learn how to engage her powers at will. She fails numerous times as the scene cuts back and forth to the funeral she’s missing. Anissa hits the junk hard, discovering, rather painfully, that her breathing pattern helps her to exercise that uncanny strength.
With that figured out, she heads to the library, where she meets Grace (Chantal Thuy) while reading up on genetic mutations. Anissa’s fluttery and explorative eyes key in on a comic book in Grace’s back pocket. Grace reciprocates Anissa’s flirtations with a coy smile, inviting her to a cosplay party later that night. The cute flirtation shared between the two women holds an opportunity for the show as a site for an expansive look into how racial differences — Grace is an Asian-American woman — can play out in queer relationships. Anissa is known as the “Black Lives Matter” girl not just to the Freeland community but to Chenoa — who unceremoniously shows up to the party, gets pissed, and summarily ends the relationship.
Even more rapidly, Jennifer tells her parents over dinner that she’s scheduled her sexy-time with Khalil for that weekend, much to their silenced awe. The scene is a cute and rare portrayal of a healthy and honest sex conversation between a Black family that doesn’t devolve into respectability or platitudes. Jefferson and Lynn seem fine with it —happy that Jennifer felt comfortable to be forthright with them about her sex life — but Jefferson, oddly, turns on a dime when he sees Khalil walking the school hallways the next day.
In the most cringe-worthy conversation of the night, Jefferson asks Khalil, in indirect terms, if he washes his genitalia on a regular basis. Which is, honestly, some pedophiliac type question that we could’ve really done without. The show has done an excellent job in its first two episodes of making every scene feel nuanced, but this one should’ve been left on the cutting-room floor.
In fact, this whole storyline, from Jennifer and Khalil’s conversation on her roof about their virginity to Khalil’s eventual fate, feels shotgunned in a way that’s unnatural for the show. During one of the softest protests this viewer has ever witnessed — protesters softly whispering “freedom” on the streets doesn’t really seem to strike fear or incite passion, like, at all — Tobias’ hired gunman prepares to attack the group. Black Lightning shows up and shields them, but when Tobias pulls up, he orders his dead-eyed companion to snipe BL from afar. She misses, hitting both Rev. Holt and Khalil in the process.
While the visual element might feel jarring, the scene doesn’t resonate emotionally, especially given how little time we’ve spent with Khalil this episode. His diagnosis felt way too on the nose — a track star may now never walk again —and with most of this action squeezed within the last five minutes of the episode’s runtime, it just happens too quickly to feel connected in any real way.
The "Book of Burial" definitely has moments where Black Lightning’s magic shines glossy and resolute. With promising aspects like the revelation of Lady Eve, Anissa’s understanding of her power and new relationship, and the ways that Jefferson and Lynn are continually learning how to find happiness in a post-marriage life, Black Lightning is still working with a full deck of cards. But this episode showed some cracks in its pacing and plotting that undoubtedly make it the weakest of the first three. Let’s hope, with all the intrigue intermittently gestured during this episode, the show delivers next week with the same style and execution of its first two.